For those who don’t have time to listen to 100 albums, I’ve provided links to one song after each write-up. Maybe it’s the album’s best song, maybe it’s the most representative, or maybe it’s something in between. I’ve also included a Spotify playlist of these songs at the bottom, although my #80 album is not on Spotify.
100. SZA: Ctrl (2017)
Though all its tracks are coolheaded songs that go down smooth, Ctrl is SZA pouring her heart out. Pop songs that sound broad get impressively specific on closer inspection, like when she frustratedly leaves a party to watch Narcos and smoke a fuckton of weed, or when she gets dumped on Valentine’s Day and fucks the guy’s friend. Her lyrics are consistently great, but “Drew Barrymore” and “Prom” cement her as a formidable hooksmith. Her depressed horniness and tendency to overshare make her the perfect avatar of disaffected young adult millennials.
Listen: “Drew Barrymore”
99. Noname: Room 25 (2018)
Noname’s hip hop is usually jazzy and relaxed, and she breaks from this trend to kick off Room 25. “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” The Spook Who Sat By The Door samples, and a quietly intense admonishment of American policing on “Prayer Song” are just the first three tracks, and they loudly announce her revolutionary intent. Room 25 is just 35 minutes, but she still manages to work 11 songs in, and each one has a memorable hook. Even when her music gets darker, her soft-landing, easy-flowing delivery feels so reassuring.
Listen: “Prayer Song” (ft. Adam Ness)
98. Snail Mail: Lush (2018)
“Who do you change for?” “I can be anyone, but I’m so entwined.” “I’m not into sometimes.” Short, punchy lines like this sneak up on you. They’d be among the highlights of the scrawlings in your high school notebook. Lush, Lindsey Jordan’s debut album, is full of these, and while “Pristine” and “Heat Wave” are twin titans, each monstrous achievements, her double-tracked choruses kill throughout. But this album’s defining point is its guitar work. Jordan’s guitar sounds like a dreamier Sonic Youth. At just eighteen, Jordan has put out the best guitar album of the decade.
97. Emperor X: Oversleepers International (2017)
Six years and one album after Western Teleport, another of the decade’s most underappreciated albums, Emperor X’s proper follow-up arrived in early 2017 and captured the bizarre political moment, including an exaggerated odyssey through the American healthcare system, maybe the best song that will ever be written about Brexit, and one called “Wasted On The Senate Floor.” Its sound and lyrics coming on like a stranger John Darnielle, Chad Matheny is hilariously verbose, his melodies are sneakily memorable, and his passion and excitement to be making music just bleed from every moment of every song.
Listen: “Schopenhauer In Berlin”
96. DJ Rashad: Double Cup (2013)
After playing a pioneering role in footwork going back to the nineties, DJ Rashad released his first true studio album in October 2013 and was dead just half a year later, cruelly taken at the age of 34. Standouts include when he stretches the Cheryl Lynn sample like putty on “Show U How” and the buildup and liftoff on “Acid Bit.” It’s killer dance music, and with the way he was still pushing the genre forward, it’s heartbreaking that he won’t be able to push it even more.
Listen: “Show U How” (ft. Spinn)
95. Frank Ocean: blond (2016)
Long gone is nostalgia,ULTRA.’s crystalline storytelling. blond is more ethereal. It’s a vibe. For many, that’s not enough. For me, “Ivy” is his most viscerally emotional writing and singing. “Nights” has ambition to match “Pyramids” and surpasses it. “Solo (Reprise)” is scorching, and makes me miss Andre 3000 dearly. Though much of this album is more formless, the guitars are always top-notch, and the best melodies always bubble up at just the right moments. It certainly isn’t the album of the decade, but blond is yet another reinvention from an artist with vision and ambition.
94. Jlin: Black Origami (2017)
Jerrilyn Patton AKA Jlin’s footwork is lively and hyperactive, and from its first second her sophomore album bounces nonstop. “Footwork” might imply that this is a dance album, and I suppose you could turn it on for that purpose. But instead it’s on this list for the way she turns over these ideas and their potential to take your mind somewhere in turn. On one listen, this might sound like a blast. On another, it might sound menacing or unceasing, its drum machines rap rap rapping until they wear down your psyche. She’s the most thrilling electronic artist out there.
Listen: “Black Origami”
93. Blood Orange: Freetown Sound (2016)
Empress Of. Nelly Furtado. Carly Rae Jepsen. Debbie Harry. These are just a few of the women found all over Freetown Sound. Dev Hynes so often defers to another voice, and as Ashlee Haze’s spoken word intro cries “feminism,” Hynes knows his voice isn’t enough for his album ambitiously exploring queer black liberation. Freetown Sound is best defined by the backdrop that Hynes’ expert production sets for his ponderings. The way “Squash Squash” or “Better Than Me” bring us inside his head is incredible. They make big songs and statements like “Best To You” or “Hands Up” hit harder.
Listen: “Best To You” (ft. Empress Of)
92. Jamie xx: In Colour (2015)
It wasn’t a question of if The xx’s producer and beatmaker was going to make a great electronic album. It was a question of when. Jamie Smith’s ear for samples is unparalleled, whether they’re front and center like the Persuasions sample on the Young Thug-driven single “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” or whether they’re more subtle, as on his kneading of The Four Freshmen on “Sleep Sound.” His music also echoes the intimacy of his band, and sometimes his bandmates show up outright. When they do, it’s a touching, well-earned victory lap for the trio.
Listen: “Loud Places” (ft. Romy)
91. Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (2013)
Ivy Tripp and Out In The Storm are immensely worthy follow-ups that see Katie Crutchfield becoming a better performer and a better bandleader, but her finest songwriting remains on sophomore effort Cerulean Salt. Here, she reflects on her uncomfortable adulthood and reacts by drinking. A lot. These songs are intimate, conveying their overwhelming melancholy by evoking the closeness of a friend. “Swan Dive,” the album’s bleakest song, is also its best and most vividly written: “We will find a way to be lonely any chance we get” is a harrowing realization. Cerulean Salt is stuffed with such moments.
Listen: “Swan Dive”
90. Control Top: Covert Contracts (2019)
“Office Rage” is a fairly standard piece of work-sucks writing, but it’s the greatest demonstration of Control Top’s powers. Ali Carter’s dancey bass lines are super high in the mix, Al Creedon’s guitar sounds like a nightmare, Alex Lichtenhauer whacks ‘em hard, and Carter yelps “CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK” with frightening conviction. “SERVICE WITH A SMILE, EAT SHIT!!!” is just icing. Their lyrics frequently straddle the ever-fuzzier line between being paranoid or simply crushed by capitalism. This post-punk is frantic, urgent, and anguished, and it’s important and straightforward in the way early punk albums were and too few are now.
Listen: “Office Rage”
89. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (2011)
Christopher Owens’ final release as Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, takes the slighter, breezier guitar rock approach of the debut and piles on until it’s heavy. “Honey Bunny” would fit right in on Album, but after that the additional layers range from a tad weightier (“Alex,” “Love Like A River”) to cumbersome (“Die,” “Vomit”). It serves these heartsick songs well, and though much of the album teeters between heartbroken and devastated (the pained “Vomit” is the band’s best song), the final moments of the album on “Jamie Marie” sneak a smile on your face.
88. Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn’t (2012)
I Know What Love Isn’t is a heart-wrenching breakup album. On “I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots,” he dreams of finding the courage to move on, and on closer “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” he sounds broken. Even on songs with gleeful piano riffs (“Become Someone Else’s”), misery is genuine and palpable on this record. But that makes it so much more rewarding when on “The World Goes On,” he recounts his embarrassing, impulsive, post-breakup misadventures and quietly sorts himself out a bit. And then he learns that the end of the world is bigger than love.
Listen: “The World Moves On”
87. oso oso: basking in the glow (2019)
On basking in the glow, Jade Lilitri is hellbent on keeping positive. A glimmering album of catchy pop-punk tunes, it’s less about simply staying positive than the process thereof, “trying to stay in that lane.” His lyrics are littered with smartassery like “watch an optimist drink half-empty cups,” and the album gets substantial mileage out of nonspecific lyrics chasing raw emotion, allowing simple lines like “my eyes lit up when I saw it” to speak for themselves. In his quest for a zen state of happiness, Lilitri’s bright guitars and expert hooks might just pull you in, too.
Listen: “basking in the glow”
86. Charly Bliss: Guppy (2017)
From Eva Hendricks’ first squeal on “Percolator,” Guppy is an excellent album of power pop that takes its cues from Weezer and Fountains of Wayne. These garagey songs bubble over with elation, even when they’re about her therapist, your boyfriend making out with his cousin, or finding the bright side of doggy death (“Does he love me most/Now that his dog is toast?”). Hendricks’ unrestrained, high-pitched singing is the real draw, especially on lines like “I bounced so high, I peed the trampoline.” It’s rough around the edges, but Guppy’s energy and charm are so rare.
85. Paramore: Paramore (2013)
Self-titling an album after losing half the band’s core is bold, but bolder still is that it’s a mammoth seventeen tracks. Aside from two wickedly sweet love songs (“Still Into You,” “Proof”), Paramore spends much time in heartache and loneliness. There’s the Cyndi Lauper twinkle on “Anklebiters” getting revved up and turned inside out, a breakup exploding on impact and giving way to a crazy girl stalker, and a gospel choir dropping you on your ass in the real world. Hayley Williams is one of the greatest rock vocalists of the century, and this ambitious album is the greatest testament to that.
Listen: “Ain’t It Fun”
84. Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (2018)
What a debut. After the bravado of “Bodak Yellow” conquered 2017, Cardi B rose to the occasion with Invasion of Privacy as the salsa-infused trap of “I Like It” conquered summer 2018. But Invasion of Privacy isn’t built around her two biggest hits. Each song isn’t just readymade to infest radio but also dancefloors and advertisements. Her entire career is unexpected, but the most unexpected success here is “Thru Your Phone,” a quietly unnerving cheating song for the age of screens. Her braggadocio never wears, and that makes it more startling to know that this is still just the beginning.
Listen: “Thru Your Phone”
83. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked At Me (2017)
Sometimes it feels as if indie has a competition for saddest album, a pathetic race to the bottom in which everyone loses. A Crow Looked At Me, about the passing of Phil Elverum’s late wife Geneviéve, is no such album, and instead claims that death is “not for singing about; it’s not for making into art.” But make it into art he does, and it hurts. Elverum’s family counselor dies two months after his wife. His wife secretly orders their daughter a backpack and he receives it after her passing. It’s heartbreakingly gentle and agonizingly lonely.
Listen: “Real Death”
82. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)
“What is the glorious fruit of our land? Its fruit is deformed children.” PJ Harvey isn’t playing around on her antiwar (by way of World War I) album, her lyrics thick with brutal images. And her haunting music sounds antiquated to fit the topic of the day, making use of the autoharp and using her thinner, higher vocals. But it’s not just war that Harvey is fed up with: she reappropriates Eddie Cochran and sighs, “what if I take my problem to the United Nations?” That skepticism of peacekeeping is why this album sounds so relevant, so exhausted.
Listen: “The Words That Maketh Murder”
81. Sky Ferreira: Ghost (2012)
The variety in these five songs is astonishing. The tender, light acoustic intro song is a bizarre introduction to this phase of her career, and becomes more intriguing set against “Lost In My Bedroom,” which is more representative of the electropop that’s made her famous. The Jon Brion production on the longing title track is another fascinating window into a different artist she might have become. But then the grunge of “Red Lips” swallows you whole then spits you out into the magnificent “Everything Is Embarrassing.” It’s scattershot and unfocused, but Ferreira’s versatility is overwhelming.
Listen: “Red Lips”
80. My Bloody Valentine: m b v (2013)
Over twenty years later, My Bloody Valentine finally rose to the impossible task of following up Loveless. Their 2013 album is rougher, weirder, and more violent. “is this and yes,” whose lonely organ and vocal hypnotically bounce you around, is the band’s strangest song, but mbv’s biggest moment is its final third, when three chaotic songs work themselves into fits until they take off. But though it’s a different monster entirely, mbv feels like Kevin Shields is picking back up where he left off. Should be fun to see where he picks back up in another twenty years.
Listen: “is this and yes”
79. Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (2010)
The strange dance of “Nose Art,” the casual working of Thom Yorke’s voice, and the hypnotic use of ping pong balls make for an album full of ideas, and it all builds around Thundercat’s turn on centerpiece “Mmmhmm.” Steven Ellison’s jazzy electronica is one of the most distinct sounds in electronic music now, but, despite fantastic sophomore effort Los Angeles, 2010’s Cosmogramma is Flying Lotus at his best and most motivated from the second “Clock Catcher” began throbbing, and it was here where he really found himself as an artist.
Listen: “Do The Astral Plane”
78. SOPHIE: OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES (2018)
The most memorable music moment in 2018 was when the beautiful “It’s Okay To Cry” faded out and then “Ponyboy” smashed your face into the wall repeatedly. UN-INSIDES still has the uncanny PC Music-style pop sensibilities of seminal EP PRODUCT, but this time it’s artsier and more feral. Especially clear when its best song “Faceshopping” (“I’m real when I shop my face”) twists itself into knots over the unclear lines between artificial and authentic, a central theme is the malleability of one’s personality, image, and body. SOPHIE magnificently plays with and demonstrates the thin line between horror and beauty.
77. Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator (2017)
A concept album about a young woman growing up ashamed of her city, waking up in the future, and taking account of what she’s lost, The Navigator is about perseverance. Reflecting Alynda Segarra’s roots in the Bronx and her Puerto Rican heritage, the album is set against a backdrop of hellish gentrification and a horrible new President. And released half a year before the landing of Hurricane Maria, “Pa’lante” is a profoundly powerful performance by Segarra, and has become a touching, wondrous anthem to Puerto Rico. The Navigator is among this millennium’s best and most important folk music.
76. Wussy: Attica! (2014)
Wussy’s biggest album begins with Who tribute “Teenage Wasteland,” which competes with “Airborne” for their best ever song. In fact, Lisa Walker is at her best throughout. “Halloween” and the title track are breezy and perfect. And though a song or two might not live up to Wussy’s grand new sound, their even dronier guitars still push their music in a thrilling way. Attica! also marks a fifth straight album of largely unnoticed sustained greatness by Wussy. And even more than on subsequent releases, Attica! sounds like the height of their wisdom as writers, as bandmates, and as recording artists.
Listen: “Teenage Wasteland”